Schools are starting to take advantage of new flexibility from a law passed by lawmakers earlier this year, that allows schools to apply for waivers to bypass certain state requirements if they can prove it will benefit students.
Lawmakers created the law before the pandemic, as a way for schools to find relief from a number of state regulations and reporting requirements that have added up over the years.
In the first round of applications considered by the State Board of Education this week, about a dozen school corporations requested waivers of some kind. Many focused on loosening requirements for certain teacher or staff training, the number of days in the school year, and reporting requirements.
Brown County Schools Superintendent Laura Hammack says COVID-19 has made the need for flexibility more urgent. Her corporation's application would change how they calculate instructional time, allowing schools to count instructional hours, not days.
"Quite simply, flexibility through the waiver process is needed now more than ever," she said.
The application also included requests to waive teacher trainings focused on suicide and bullying prevention. Hammack says her corporation has greatly increased efforts to focus on students' mental and emotional wellbeing, going beyond state training requirements. She says a waiver for those state mandated trainings would give teachers more time – a precious commodity during the pandemic.
"This action is not to disengage from what the mandates intend to address, but instead to have the freedom to identify at our local level how best to tackle the issues the law attempts to address," she said.
The first round of waivers from school corporations across the state all mentioned the need for greater flexibility from the state during the COVID-19 pandemic. But board members split on whether schools should be granted waivers for bullying and suicide prevention training, as well as requests to waive training laws for school police officers, and ultimately denied them with a 7-4 vote.
Some applications also included state requirements that cannot be waived under the new flexibility law, leaving the board no choice but to reject them or ask for schools to review their applications and try again.
But the new law also requires an annual report to lawmakers outlining schools' requests, in case the General Assembly decides to further consider any changes that should be made during the legislative session.
Overall, the board denied more requests than it granted.